Patrick O’Neill: Starting Well – Avoiding Poor Beginnings

Patrick O'Neill and his publication Transformational Leader, continues to offer helpful advice to people in leadership positions.  His latest, Starting Well outlines how to avoid poor beginnings the inevitable result of a 'fast lane' mentality in organizations that attempt to manage at warp speed.  With Patrick's permission, here is the full article, including four 'starting out' practices that produce reliable results

Starting Well

Early stage formation — from starting a new project, to building a new team, to designing a new strategy — is a haphazard affair in many organizations. Frequently, there is very little forethought or discipline applied to this critical process. Poor beginnings are enabled by a "fast lane" mentality that is prevalent in most workplaces.
Usually, beginnings are managed at warp speed. The attitude is "let's dive into the work and sort things out only if we need to later." That's a recipe for breakdown and hours upon hours of needless clean up work.

What does produce results though, is a disciplined beginning. Leaders who create good beginnings enable their people to succeed. Their organizations and teams can adapt to changing market requirements, new structures and projects with diminished chaos, conflict or confusion.

Here's a cautionary tale about one particularly messy beginning. A new divisional leader held his first town hall meeting for 1200 people. There had been a big reorganization and this gentleman was hired from outside the company to create more operating efficiency and effectiveness.

This was a proud company with a long history of excellence and success. The division he was hired to lead had been the source of many organizational best practices.

The best you could say about his introduction to the assembled workforce is that it was compelling. After he introduced himself and listed his accomplishments, he got to the heart of his message.

He wanted everyone in the room to know that he was going to be the author of some very big changes in the coming months and that people could either get on board or they could leave the company.

As you can imagine, people were not amused.

He lasted six months, marooned like Captain Bligh, by a staff mutiny. People were so angry after the meeting that they vowed to get him. They did.

A better approach was found by his successor. She recognized that the workforce had the answer to continuous improvement and held extensive consultation meetings throughout the organization, incorporating many of the ideas that she heard from the workforce into her approach to change management.

The town hall that she held after these consultations was a very different gathering.

She thanked staff for their honesty and innovative thinking in the consultation process. She acknowledged all that had being going right in the operation.

Next, she explained why change was necessary to maintain competitiveness and increase operating efficiency. Then she outlined a plan of action, setting the context for co-created change.

She solicited feedback and input from all those gathered and incorporated it into the plan.

Then, she asked for the help of all hands and committed to a ninety-day plan for the first phase of change with a promise to provide regular updates.

This Transformational Leader understood the power of a good beginning. She had undoubtedly benefited from her predecessor's misstep.

Here are four practices that produce reliable results at beginnings:
(1) Setting context
People want to know three things at beginnings: where are we going, how will we get there, and what does success look like?

The answer to those simple questions can accelerate cohesion and progress. When those questions remain unanswered, the resulting confusion will generate breakdown.

Setting context promotes understanding and safety because it educates others about directional questions without expecting that they will know.

In the absence of information, people reach their own conclusions. Often those conclusions are in opposition to intended goals or with the assumptions of others.

Context setting is an act of visionary leadership because it helps people align their eyes with a bigger, shared picture. This supports collaboration and coordinated action.

(2) Rules of Engagement and RRA's
The next thing people need to understand is how they will work together and about respective roles, responsibilities and authority (RRA's).

Guidelines and ground rules for conduct, including ethics, provide clear direction on how to work together effectively. When there are common behavioral and procedural norms in place, everyone shares a framework and common practices. This serves to define the organizational culture, supports functional and cross- functional processes, and promotes civility.

RRA's help people to communicate and collaborate. When people understand how their particular role is designed to contribute to the team and organizational goals they are empowered to act. It is vital that the assignments of teammates and other interdependent teams be explicit. This allows coordinated action within complex organizational structures.

Without such clarity, duplication of work, hesitation and conflict can impede progress. When no one knows whose job it is, the job belongs to no one.

Decision-making must also be explicit. Clear authority and processes are required to move the action forward. When decision-making is confused, progress is impeded and organizational lethargy and conflict result.

(3) Building Familiarity
The third practice of good beginnings is designed to connect people. Strong relationships are formed over time but good beginnings accelerate the understanding and goodwill required for long-term success.

At beginnings, relationships are often tentative. People are checking each other out, measuring themselves and their colleagues, jockeying for position.

This early-stage behavior is understandable. People may have acceptance and approval needs and trust issues. Such issues must be addressed and retired early so that they do not inhibit collective work. This can be done simply and effectively through team building.

It's important to cultivate an environment where company and team spirit can grow. That fertile ground is mission pride and relationship. When people have a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves, and that they have an important part to play along with like-minded colleagues, they flourish.

Relationships hold organizations together when the going gets tough. Challenge, change and conflict are three conditions that test cohesion. The stronger the bonds between people, the more resilient organizations become.

Getting relationships right at the beginning builds good communication, generosity and camaraderie, the qualities that further collaboration and innovation.

(4) Setting Common Goals
Finally, common goals are required for a strong start. Unity comes from a shared destination. When teams and organizations understand what milestones they must head towards and the benchmarks of performance they can support such intentions with action.

Most leaders I have spoken with find this particularly challenging work. Providing a sense of what the future could and should look like requires insight and articulation. I always ask for goals to be stated in 13 words or less and in plain language. That formula supports leaders to really think about the impact that they want the goal to have.

Plain and simple language also supports common understanding. When teams and organizations are able to grasp where they should be heading it becomes much easier to align activities, set priorities and search for ways of working together to get there.

Every competitive athlete knows that the advantage goes to those that take charge of the race at its beginning. Organizations can also win when they capitalize on starting well. Attention and discipline can make the difference between building a strong and steady pace right out of the gate or having to go back to the starting line because of poor practices.

Related Links:

Patrick's company: Extraordinary Conversations

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